Star Trek: The Case For Writing A Screenplay With Dramatica

If it worked the first time, why change it up?

Writer and producers wonder if the Dramatica theory of story is an effective tool for developing a narrative. Without concrete evidence to support the theory's claims, they often cite complexity and perceived low adoption as reasons for discounting it altogether. One need only turn to the Star Trek franchise for proof of concept.

Star Trek: Beyond is fun but empty. The lack of a consistent Influence Character Throughline and the complete absence of a Relationship Story Throughline insures that this film will be forgotten in a relatively short amount of time. An understanding of [the Dramatica theory of story( and its unique take on the development of narrative becomes priority one for writers who want their work to last.

A Feature Film Written with Dramatica

Rumors persist that the 2009 reboot of Star Trek was written with the Dramatica theory of story firmly in the back pocket of the screenwriters. Whether or not this is true, one can find a strong storyform throughout the entire narrative. This storyform is why you can recount exactly what happened in that film, but have no idea what happened in the second Star Trek. The storyform's structure as a model of a single human mind trying to solve a problem guarantees the synthesis of a story in our own psyche.

In other words, you can't forget a movie that thinks like you.

Spock driven to overreact at the very nature of his Vulcanism is a conscious effort to steer clear of the simple and obvious choice of falling back on the tried and true logic argument. As Influence Character to Kirk's Main Character, his Influence Character Problem of Control creates an Influence Character Focus of Feeling and an Influence Character Response of Logic--meaning he himself sees his feelings as an issue and rational thought the answer, when deep down inside its really the fact that Spock can't control himself. Eventually, and due in no small part to Kirk's Steadfast Main Character Resolve, Spock does discover the means to control his outbursts (Influence Character Solution of Control, Influence Character Resolve of Changed).

In addition to this very strong quad of narrative thematics, the Relationship Story Solution is encoded with such precision that it almost feels like old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is quoting the Dramatica Dictionary. Saying he did what he did as an "act of faith" when the Relationship Story Solution of the storyform calls for Faith is a clear indication that Dramatica helped in the formation of that strong and memorable narrative.

Unfortunately, it is hard to determine what happened after that film.

It is almost as if the screenwriters and those responsible for the next two films forgot to reinstall Dramatica after upgrading their MacBooks. The second film, Star Trek: Into the Darkness, was abysmal in terms of story and this last one--though not as bad as the second--shares its deficiency in crafting a complete argument.

Something to Remember

A strong and solid storyform determines whether a story persists in the minds of an Audience years on down the road, or if it is quickly forgotten before they pay for parking. Recent films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Dark Horse create lasting impressions in the hearts of viewers, resulting in them cherishing the work. A broken narrative fails to connect on a deeper level and thus, sadly fades away.

Star Trek: Beyond starts out strong, then begins the fading away process as the film progresses.

A Good Start

The captain's log is a mainstay and welcome companion on any Star Trek adventure. Making it an integral part of the Main Character Throughline is brilliant. Kirk's complaints about feeling bored and questioning their mission to "seek out new life and new civilizations" gives us something meaty to grab onto emotionally. It is an intimate look into Kirk's state-of-mind--something we haven not seen in a long time.

Unfortunately this may have been why the studio decided to replace the director. Like Brave, those in charge may have felt less comfortable with taking time out to explore a complex and emotionally fulfilling narrative. Better to hire the man behind The Fast and the Furious franchise to finish things off.

The result is pure fun--make no mistake--Star Trek: Beyond is great fun and if you claim status as a fan of any of the series you will love what they do to the Enterprise within the first thirty minutes. Just realize that you won't be leaving with a better understanding of Kirk, or anyone else within the film for that matter.

An Illogical Fallacy: Two Main Characters

As mentioned in this week's Narrative First Podcast:

It is illogical captain, to presuppose that two Main Character could effectively carry an entire film without the slightest indication of an Influence Character or Relationship Story.

Spock is right. It is one thing to share a common perspective between two characters, but to share it among several others and only show a glimmer of an Influence Character Throughline in what has always been a source of comedy relief is a recipe for narrative sadness.

Both Kirk and Spock--who were Main Character and Influence Character with competing perspectives in the first film--end up with the same perspective in Star Trek: Beyond. They both want our of starfleet. They both want disunity.

So where then is the voice of unity?

A Commonality Between the Objective and Subjective

You certainly won't find it in Antagonist Krall (Idris Elba). He takes disunity to a whole new level, wanting to disband and destroy the Federation.

When you put the Influence Character role in the Antagonist you have to make sure he differs from the Main Character with his point-of-view. Sharing perspectives is the quickest way to suck all the oxygen out of a meaningful argument between the two.

Still, this technique of mirroring the Main Character's personal issue with what happens in the Objective Story Throughline is a great way to bring meaning to a work. By exploring the same problem from a subjective view through the Main Character and looking at it objectively with the Objective Story, a story us something they cannot receive in real life: a chance to see inside and outside of ourselves at the same time.

Star Trek: Beyond does right by us with this approach. However it still does not address the voice of unity issue.

Several Options and Missed Opportunities

At first, it appears that distressed alien Kalara (Lydia Wilson) will provide that much needed alternative perspective. Revealed as a saboteur and in allegiance with Krall, Kalara confesses that she did what she had to in order to save her crew. Perfect. The voice of unity found.

Unfortunately, she doesn't last very long.

Next it appears that the acrobatic and self-sufficient Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) will take over this key perspective for a complete narrative. She saves Scotty's life and seems primed for a significant part in the story. After all, she is on the one-sheet--often a clear indication that a character is of import to the narrative.

Unfortunately, Jaylah is a loner and shares the same exact perspective as Kirk and Spock and Krall. She wants nothing to do with crew or unity.

In fact, if anyone in Star Trek: Beyond is to be the voice of unity it is Scotty (Simon Pegg). He counters Jaylah's belief in looking out for yourself and presses the importance of a solid crew. It is strange to think of what usually amounts to comedy relief as an important part of a story's narrative, but if Scotty is the one to provide it, so be it.

Yet, Scotty only communicates his point-of-view to Jaylah. In a scene primed for a Relationship Story Throughline moment, she confronts Kirk with this idea of unity. It works and brings to mind Kirk's personal issues, but fails to make any meaningful progress in the development of any character.

The rest of the film deals strictly with plot machinations. Up until the climactic moment...

A Confusion of Character

That moment when Krall pauses to look at himself in the mirror? It feels like the kind of moment that should happen in the narrative, yet for some reason feels completely incongruous with everything that came before. Again, this is because both Kirk and Krall share the same point-of-view.

If somehow Kirk was for unity/crew and Krall was for disunity and chaos, then it would make sense that Krall would have a character-based emotional dilemma at this point in the narrative. Krall would change based on Kirk's steadfastness, like Spock did in the first Star Trek.

But remember--someone forgot to reinstall Dramatica.

Kirk would have to be setup as the Steadfast Main Character in much the same way that Woody was in the original Toy Story. Woody appears to change, but really he returns to his original perspective of being there for Andy no matter what. Kirk would have to be for the crew and Federation from the start, and then have that perspective torn down until the final climatic moment in the air vortex where he would have to recommit to the group dynamic. That would reaffirm his Steafast resolve and motivate Krall to change during that yearning look in the shard of glass.

Krall would be the Changed Influence Character, somehow sacrificing himself for ship and crew. A significant amount of rewriting would be required to backtrack into that scnene and they would have to create a meaningful relationship between Kirk and Krall. But it would have certainly been better than the Bones and Spock Deus Ex Machina moment that springs up out of nowhere to save the day.1

You can sense the filmmaker's instinct in Krall's moment of self-reflection. Every human on the planet intuitively gets story as it is the same process by which we all solve problems. But without the proper setup, any change on Krall's behalf would feel forced and false.

Changing Because

In the end, Kirk reunites and comes back to unity just because. Because it feels like the right thing to do and because it wraps up the thread of his personal issue. Without a clear Influence Character or Relationship Story, his paradigm shift is a matter of fact rather than something we identify with emotionally.

Star Trek: Beyond is a super fun film. Definitely one of the best in the Star Trek franchise. Regrettably, it will be forgotten within a month or two. With Star Trek: Into the Darkness one remembers Benedict Cumberbatch's performance and that's it. With Star Trek: Beyond we will only remember those first thirty minutes.2

The 2009 version of Star Trek lasts years later because it was built on a strong foundation. Like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a storyform rests at the bottom of that film and acts as a persistent carrier wave for the Author's unique message. Dramatica clarifies the artist's vision for a story. By helping to shore up any missing parts and define points-of-view, the Dramatica theory of story guarantees the lifespan of a feature film--even light years into the future.

  1. Deus Ex Machina moments feel false because they are not tied to the narrative structure, or storyform, of a narrative.
  2. And a touching nod to George Takei's sexuality when the Enterprise first arrives at the Yorktown. Pure class.